Battle of the “Kids in Adult Body” Comedies: Big vs. 13 Going on 30

There are numerous films about people switching bodies. Even the final episode of the original Star Trek series centered on this. Many of these stories are played for comedy, although a notable exception was the 1997 thriller Face/Off in which John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play mortal enemies who alter their appearances to resemble each other, with both stars hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow.

But two films with this idea involved not two people swapping their bodies, but rather a child who’s magically transformed into an adult.

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Big (1988)

The first of these was this film directed by Penny Marshall and written by Anne Spielberg (Steven’s sister).

Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a pre-teen from New Jersey who’s at the age where he wishes he could start being treated like an adult. This isn’t helped when he goes to a carnival one evening and is told that he’s not tall enough go on a ride and join a girl he pines for. But the carnival also introduces him to a fortune telling machine called the Zoltar. Josh wishes he was “big” and the machine gives him a card saying his wish is granted. He scoffs at this, but is startled to realize the machine isn’t plugged in.

When Josh wakes up at his home the next morning, he’s startled to find that he now has the height and appearance of an adult (Tom Hanks). He quickly darts off to the carnival grounds, only to find that everything has already been removed, including the Zoltar. While his infant sister seems to be comfortable with Josh clandestinely sending her to the living room, their mom (Mercedes Ruehl) is more hostile upon seeing him, convinced that Josh is really a man who’s done something horrible to her son and chases him away.

Josh’s best friend Billy (Jared Rushton) also understandably freaks out at first when the now-adult Josh approaches him, but he calms down when Josh recites a song only they sing. Billy helps him go to New York City with some stolen cash, where they get Josh a room at a crappy hotel (the Muppets had the Happiness Hotel, Josh gets St. James).

The duo learn that it will take about two months before the Zoltar can be found again. In the meantime, Josh agrees to get a job, and finds one as a data entry clerk for a toy company. He writes to his mom as he starts to get used to the idea that he now has a job. Soon, Josh’s playful demeanor earns him the respect of his company’s boss (Robert Loggia), leading to the famous scene where they play on a walking piano. Josh is later given a cushy position in a comfortable office playing with prototypes of new toys. He also manages to catch the eye of his co-worker Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), to the annoyance of her colleague Paul (John Heard).

As the weeks go by, Josh and Susan begin to fall in love while he becomes more acclimated with the adult world he’s now in (complete with a nice new apartment that he supplies with a pinball machine and a soda machine, neither of which need quarters).

This new life eventually leads Billy to personally go to Josh’s office (after leaving numerous messages) with the news of where they can find the Zoltar, and drill it into Josh’s head that he’s still only 12. He even reminds Josh that Billy is several months older than him. When Josh attempts to tell Susan this, she thinks it’s his way of saying that he’s scared of commitment.

During a business meeting, Josh suddenly decides to leave for the park where the Zoltar is. Susan follows after learning from Billy where Josh is heading. She arrives at the park just as Josh has wished to become a kid again. They share a heart-to-heart with Josh telling Susan that she’s the only part of his time as an adult he wants to keep. Susan, while saddened, declines Josh’s offer for the machine to make her a little girl, and they bid each other farewell when she takes him home.

13 Going on 30 (2004)

16 years after Big came this comedy, this time involving a girl being thrown into an adult world.

The story begins in 1987, with Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) about to celebrate her 13th birthday. Among her guests are Matt Flamhaff (Sean Marquette), who secretly pines for her, and Lucy “Tom-Tom” Wyman (Alexandra Kyle), who leads the “Six Chicks” clique that Jenna desperately wants to be part of.

Matt arrives with his birthday gift, a dollhouse with wishing dust [!]. But Jenna is more interested in Lucy’s promise that she’ll spend time with another boy Jenna has a crush on. Lucy has Jenna lock herself in her closet, blindfolded, waiting for said boy. In fact, she and the other girls have bolted with the boys and even some of the food. The only one left is Matt, whom Lucy directs to the closet, saying Jenna is waiting for him. He excitedly does so, but Jenna becomes horrified when she realizes it’s not the guy she wanted. She forces him out of the closet and tearfully wishes she was “30, flirty. and thriving.” As Jenna wishes this, some of the contrived wishing dust starts to sprinkle on her.

Jenna opens her eyes to find herself in a strange apartment, wearing a nightie and a new face (Jennifer Garner), which startles her when she looks in a mirror. She also finds a scantly-clad man inside, prompting her to dart off to the ground floor of the nice Fifth Avenue building that’s apparently her home. The adult Lucy (Judy Greer) meets up with her, and taking Jenna into her limo, is annoyed at having to tell her that she now works for the fashion magazine Poise.

As she spends the rest of the day getting adjusted to what now defines her life (including getting Eminem confused with the candy), Jenna decides to find out where Matt is now. When they reunite, she’s struck by his now-handsome appearance (Mark Ruffalo), but even more so at how he’s less than friendly with her. Matt, who’s now a photographer, explains that during her missing years, Jenna became the “Seventh Chick” as well as the prom queen, and hasn’t spoken to Matt or her own parents in years.

Jenna attempts to change her ways, and even uses her new (to her) prestige to befriend the 13-year-olds living in her neighborhood. But Jenna is later saddened when, due to Lucy’s backstabbing, she realizes that she herself has also stolen ideas for the magazine and even had an affair with a co-worker’s husband.

She begins to made amends by reconnecting with her parents. Jenna also offers Matt a nice photography gig with her magazine, which gives his career a boost. The two begin spending more time together, even though Matt is engaged to someone else.

Her plans for the magazine are applauded until a rival magazine, which Lucy is now the head of, shows up with the same kind of material. Jenna confronts Lucy, who retorts that she was just doing what Jenna previously did. This leads to a disappointed Matt proceeding with his wedding. Jenna pleads with him just before he walks down the aisle, but his only reply is to give her the dollhouse.

But the house still has some of that handy dust on it, which promptly falls on Jenna. Naturally, this whisks her back to 1987, where she embraces Matt and tells Lucy to piss off. The film ends with Jenna and Matt walking down the aisle themselves.

Which is better?

Both films do a good job at delivering laughs, thanks to the two leads. Hanks wasn’t quite the superstar he is now when he made Big, but that film not only got him his first Oscar nomination, but gave his career a second wind that led to many now viewing him as James Stewart’s heir apparent. Not only is Hanks funny, but he makes it easy to sympathize with Josh as he finds himself suddenly and unexpectedly put into a new kind of world. While many now wonder about (and are even annoyed by) the implication of Susan essentially having an intimate relationship with a minor, the sweetness that the film itself delivers can’t be denied.

Likewise, Garner is the main reason to see 13 Going on 30. She became a star by proving her dramatic chops on the TV series Alias, but here she proves she can do comedy as well. The scenes where Jenna comes face to face with the ramifications of the missteps she’s made, even though she has no recollection of making them, are also great thanks to Garner.

I’ve never collected or built dollhouses, so I may not be one to talk here, but I always rolled my eyes over the fact that the wishing dust that starts everything off seems to be something one could get at any hobby store. We also can tell from the beginning that Jenna is meant to be with Matt and that she should kick Lucy to the curb.

While she’s gotten more press recently from her divorce from Ben Affleck, Garner’s career is still going strong.

Curiously, both Hanks and Garner appeared in Steven Spielberg’s great comedy Catch Me If You Can, although they didn’t share any scenes.

Overall, I think Big has the edge over 13 Going on 30, because of its slightly sharper screenplay. Well, as sharp as a comedy with a tinge of fantasy in its narrative can be, anyway. But both films have laughs as well as protagonists who are easy to identify with and root for.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

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  • danbreunig

    So basically the difference is in how the premise is set up for the same subject matter.

    For Big, the kid wakes up as an adult and is still the character he always was, just now in an adult body; thus he has to adjust to his already daily circumstances, only channeled through a new body.

    For 13 Going On 30, the kid wakes up as her already adult self in her own future; thus her spell was more a bit of time travel than living the current day with a new body–she was just time-skipped into her own already established future as a taste of what’s to come for her.

    Neither movie appealed to me. It bothers me when comedies are hyped as funny and in the end barely reach amusing. What movies out there took this same premise and made it into a whole other genre, like a drama, action, thriller, art film or whatever else?

    Also, THIS is Zoltar.

  • nonameblue

    I’m really getting tired of everybody saying that “13 going on 30” is “like Big, but with a woman instead of Tom Hanks.”
    No, it’s not. The real comparision is not to Big, which follows Freaky Friday and similar comedies as the kid learns to appreciate childhood, and understand that adults have Problems in their life, too.
    13 going on 30 follows the Peggy Sue got married plot, where an adult gets the Chance to undo the mistakes in her past. Unlike Big, where the kid just gets an adult Body, Jemma gets a whole life and learns that the path she choose to be successful turned her into a jerk, with no real friends.
    When she Returns to her own teenage time, the lesson she’s learned is not “appreciate childhood” or “adults have Problems, too” it’s “don’t strive to be popular, but listen to your own conscience, don’t become a jerk”
    (The message is also not “Ambition in itself is evil”! It’s “taking the easy path of becoming a jerk to get ahead is evil”.)